Art, science and invention: A letter from the dean

Wednesday, March 8, 2017
Doug Dempster portrait by Ann Hamilton

I want to talk about art and science art and invention, and how the arts remain relevant in an increasingly technology-driven university and world.

America’s public universities have become giant, cultural, scientific and economic holding companies tasked with everything from being comprehensive cultural treasure houses and archives to managing public parks to delivering health care to our poorest citizens. Pared down to our vitals, however, The University of Texas at Austin has two purposes: to cultivate the next generation and expand knowledge. That’s education and research.

Increasingly, “research” has come to tilt ever more toward practical, economically promising, problem-solving discovery and innovation. Experimentation leads to discovery. Discovery suggests technological innovation. Technological innovation creates commercial opportunities and productivity. Commerce creates jobs.

Where does that leave the arts when little of what we do—however creative and original it might be—could ever be properly described as “research”?

But the arts are every bit as experimental and discovery prone as the STEM fields. The difference is in what we value and expect out of these close disciplinary cousins and what price we put on invention.

That’s evident in the work of art historians and musicologists who study past cultures. When Professor Penelope Davies literally digs into the history of Republican Rome and the role of concrete in the monumental structures that glorified that city and its far-flung territories, we make discoveries about the flowering of a Roman empire and, by extension, about the role of architecture and engineering today, and perhaps something more about our own political and imperial aspirations. Discovery, certainly, if not invention.

Can we see anything analogous in the work of artists and performers? We’re lucky enough this semester to have artist Ann Hamilton in residence for a Landmarks project to install her piece O N E E V E R Y O N E in the Dell Medical School. O N E E V E R Y O N E is a collection of portraits drawn from 20,000 images of more than 500 individuals in the Austin community. In the age of selfies and Snapchat, portraits—especially portraits of friends and coworkers—are something we all understand intuitively.

As with much art, what’s most important in O N E E V E R Y O N E is not right on the surface of the work evident to casual observation. Hamilton employs a rigorous, disciplined process of experimenting with materials and tools to capture these images. She employs in this work a special plastic membrane transparent to the touch. The effects rendered are strikingly distinctive even in a familiar genre. But the resonances between the shimmering portraits fabricated in both paper and porcelain beg us to reflect on the transience of life and the permanence of art that freezes it forever. Ars longa. Vita brevis. Art is long. Life is short.

O N E E V E R Y O N E is an experiment that leads to discoveries about what might be elicited in our vision and feelings when rare materials and techniques are deployed within the familiar conventions of portraiture.

Does this make art as inventive as engineering or as productive as a new general-purpose technology like 3D printing or AI? Inventiveness and productivity are, in large part, in the eye and needs of the beholder. They depend largely on what we most value in life and what price we put on the invention.

This issue of Arts Next looks into the latest “inventions” and boundary-pushing discoveries in the College of Fine Arts.

Excelsior!

Doug Dempster

Photo credit: Doug Dempster by Ann Hamilton for O N E E V E R Y O N E
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